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When Base Political Instincts Are Considered Normal

Pakistan’s Filthy Rich Elections

by TARIQ ALI

The antics of mainstream politicians in Pakistan (or the whole of South Asia) no longer appear unique, just a more extreme version of some of their European and North American counterparts. The South Asians could, in fact, be regarded as pioneers, shamelessly and shamefully linking politics to big money long before the latest wave of globalization.   Even amongst their own supporters, very few see them as defenders of noble causes or servants of the public good and, increasingly, they themselves no longer feel the need to adopt fictive ideologies. The baser instincts— never-sated financial appetites, ambition, power, bribes paid and received etc—are now regarded as normal. Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel, How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is deadly accurate in describing this mood. A would-be-tycoon has been advised by a civil servant how to meet and bribe a leading politician. He’s received while the great man is having lunch. In the words of the fictional do-it-yourself manual:

‘Your deal is concluded in an uncomplicated, if seemingly whimsical, fashion, the politician asking one of his henchmen for an opinion with a laugh and raised eyebrow, much as he might ask him to assess the desirability of a mid-priced prostitute. A number is thrown out. This is accepted by you with obsequious murmurs and bows of the head, precisely as you have been instructed to do by the bureaucrat. And that is that.’

Even the best fiction is hard pushed to compete with the realities of everyday life in Pakistan. The six months preceding the elections saw two factory fires in Karachi and Lahore with dozens of workers (the youngest was 12 years old) being burnt to death, without arousing more than token expressions of regret or any pledge that the winning party would introduce a tough new law. Safety regulation of enterprises large and small barely exists and where it does a modest bribe usually solves the problem. Factory inspections were discontinued during the Musharraf regime. Where outright crimes are about to be committed its best to clothe them in the cloak of religion, a particularist interpretation to justify what is about to happen.  The poison effectively paralyses the lower and middle echelons of the judiciary, the police and the politicians. Earlier this year in March, Joseph Colony a Christian settlement of janitors in Lahore’s Badami Bagh, was attacked by a hard-core Muslim group calling itself  ‘Lovers of the Prophet.’  The Lovers had been stoked by false accusations of ‘blasphemy’, i.e. accusations that the Christians had defiled the name of Muhammad.  The person accused was arrested. The Lovers together with other zealots then attacked the settlement and burnt two hundred dwellings while the police and other worthy citizens watched the scene. As news of the carnage spread and the Shahbaz Sharif government pretended that nothing was going on, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in a suo moto action observed during the first hearing that this did not appear to be a case of blasphemy, rather a land grab. He criticized the police and Punjab government (Chief Minister: Shahbaz Sharif) for doing nothing and noted that it had not learnt any lessons from an even worse atrocity in a predominantly Christian small town (Gojra) in 2009 during which eight Christians were burnt alive, dozens were injured, houses torched and a church destroyed. The Chief Justice asked why the Report of the judicial Commission of Enquiry on that incident had not been published. No reply from the provincial government. The global increase in religiosity on every continent can’t be unrelated to the accumulation of suffering or the alienation, despair and uncertainties that flow from the political economy that is so dominant today. The turn to religion is an attempt to relieve moral anguish by a set of formulae and rituals. A depressed, demoralized and disoriented people seek solace in religion. In Pakistan this is taken advantage of my frauds and charlatans of allsorts. Inner ‘purification’ requires exterior measures such as targeting the ‘impure’ Muslims and members of other religions.

Did any of this trouble the elected representatives of the people in the National or provincial parliaments? No. They were busy elsewhere.   Let’s take just one example: the shenanigans of the Sind provincial Assembly where the Zardari party was and still is the single largest bloc representing the people. On the day preceding its dissolution prior to the general election campaign, the provincial government led by the PPPP ordered all the banks in Sind to remain open (it was a Saturday) so that money could be extracted. Long-expired projects were hurriedly revived and a number of dodgy deals were hurriedly voted through the chamber. And as if to reward themselves for all their hard work, the assembly voted its members a 60 percent salary rise backdated to July 2011. The proceedings were concluded in a similar spirit, with the rogues voting in favour of measures to help those amongst their number who might not be re-elected. They would still be entitled to existing perks—free government accommodation replete with servants, VIP treatment at airports, official passports, etc.—for life. Why they refrained from making the privileges hereditary  remains a tiny mystery. Needless to add very few members of parliament pay taxes and several outgoing Zardari cabinet ministers, including the Prime Minister, are refusing to pay their share of the electricity and telephone bills. Hence the desperation on the part of many to become a member of any of the existing five parliaments in the country. Membership of these august bodies will help them become what they are.

And so it happened on 11 May 2013 that after being governed for five years by a party led by the filthy rich Asif Zardari, the country voted to replace him and his gang with the filthy rich Sharif brothers and their gang. Veterans of the NGO community hastily declared their loyalty to the new regime, praising democracy but in reality by their very actions only confirming that both sides of the coin are basically the same. Crooks and climbers, braggarts and boozers, swindlers and schemers, serial rapists rule the roost, regardless of which gang wins. In their local environments many of the parliamentarians appear as frightening and colorful figures: a land-grab or two here, a few abducted women, stolen properties, blackmail, violence, bullying. In the National Assembly they become mediocrities, ignored by their patrons and barely able to comprehend the contents of a parliamentary bill crafted by civil servants (whose own standards have dropped drastically) and concerned mainly with making up for the five years that they were out of power and lost out on the money and land-grabbing stakes. The combined history of Zardari and the Sharifs as political entrepreneurs has been sketched in this journal often enough [LRB….]. So what is there to say about the general elections of May 2013?

First, that the turnout was huge. 86 million people (60 percent of the electorate) voted. The Pakistan Muslim League (N), the vehicle currently licensed to the Sharifs, won convincingly with the help of a first-past-the-post system whose distorting effects produce a truncated democracy. The PML (N) couldn’t quite govern on their own. A few more seats were needed for an overall majority. These was made available by a few ‘Independents’ voluntarily joining the largest party and additional security, if necessary, can easily be purchased for a modest price: some of the elected ‘Independents’, who usually auction themselves to the highest bidder when no party is close to an overall majority, now have little choice but to go with the winner who decides the price. The Sharifs are also in the process of negotiating a national coalition with the JUI (Jamiat-Ulema-i-Islam) an old Islamist outfit led by a colourful and roguish Mullah, Fazlur Rehman, better known as ‘ Maulana Diesel’ because of the deal he once cut with Benazir Bhutto: the diesel franchise in the Peshawar region in return for parliamentary support to her party. He never suggested that one could be holy and just with impunity. If all he wants is a few business deals, no problem. But if he wants backing to mount a coup against Imran Khan’s PTI in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (the border province resting alongside Afghanistan on the map) he might encounter some resistance. Nawaz Sharif, a cricket fanatic, is keen to maintain good relations with Imran Khan.

Secondly, the Pakistan Peoples Party under Asif Zardari’s stewardship, long past its sell-by-date even before he took over, has been wiped out as national presence. It was humiliated in the country’s largest province—the Punjab— and is now effectively restricted to its home base in Sind, reducing a once hegemonic political force to the status of a provincial pawn. The reason for its fall is hardly a mystery. Zardari and cronies did not even bother to pull the wool over people’s eyes before demanding they sell their houses and land at a fraction of the real value.  Duplicity and deceit were discarded in favour of pure villainy. There are too many stories to recount but one assumes that they will now be published. At a gathering of party workers and leaders in Lahore two weeks ago, the latter were subjected to open abuse. Zardari was taunted and attacked for appointing corrupt cronies to the Prime Ministership, men who had nil interest in the welfare of the country or its people. Naheed Khan, the close confidante and private secretary of Benazir Bhutto, who was sitting next to her leader when she was assassinated was one of the critics. Zardari loathes her (and vice versa) and she has remained silent on those events largely out of an understandable fear that she might be bumped off. Will she now publish her diaries and reveal all? There is also talk of ridding the party of parasites and crooks in the Punjab and creating a newer, cleaner outfit. It might be too late.

Thirdly there is the emergence of Imran Khan’s PTI as the second largest party in the country and the largest in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The much- predicted political tsunami that he promised would sweep him to power never materialized. A majority of first time voters plumped for the Sharifs take on the country, its continuous crises and the proposed solution.  Clearly they believed that as businessmen themselves the brothers would end the power cuts that have destroyed many small businesses and made the lives of a majority of people even more miserable than usual. The only solution being touted is immediate privatization of the steel mills, airlines, railways and power and the ending of food subsidies. On the face of it this appears attractive to many since the state has, disastrously, failed to deliver, but it’s obvious that the poor will suffer. Nawaz Sharif’s highway that has reduced car time from Lahore to Islamabad by nearly two hours is barely used. The bullet trains being proposed from Karachi to Islamabad via Lahore would be a boon to those who could afford them and, as in the case of the highway, a lot of local contractors and foreign companies would get filthy rich, but who will use them? The railway privatization in Britain has been a disaster and has not led to less government spending and subsidies.  To impose IMF required austerity measures in a country like Pakistan would deepen the class divide that already exists. Introducing VAT, for instance, would automatically increase malnutrition and encourage more people to turn to crime. And the notion that privatizing everything helps reduce corruption is a joke. If anything it institutionalizes sleaze as can be seen most clearly in the United States and in most of Europe.

Where immediate reforms are needed is in the tax system. As elsewhere in the world, the filthy rich barely pay any taxes since most of their income is unregistered and hidden from view.  Nonetheless the gap between the tax collected and the tax lodged in the state treasury is huge and, according to some estimates, might be as high as 200 billion rupees a year. This alone could lay the foundations for a proper state education and health service that was the main demand of the PTI.   Given the close links between Washington and Islamabad one could suggest that in this field the help of the fierce and unforgiving IRS should be sought to come and create a new structure for the tax service. Their agents could take over the dozens of CIA residences in the country and convert them into National Tax Enforcement Training Centers and, in extremis, mini-drones could be used to target tax avoiders and their properties locally and abroad. This measure would be enormously popular in a country where between 60 and 70 percent of the population currently regard the US as their main enemy.

Imran Khan lost because young and old decided to give the Sharif brothers another chance to modernize the country. The PTI had antagonized some of its supporters by doing deals with tried and tested failures: bandwagon careerists who joined thinking they would be on the winning side. Others did not like the cozying up to the Jamaat-i-Islami, a moderate Islamist party not unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world.  There was large-scale rigging in Karachi, but this is always the case since the MQM, which runs the city is not too dissimilar to the Camorra in Naples. Its protection rackets policed by armed goons ensure a steady flow of funds and parliamentary representation. Yes, they cheat.   On this occasion a recount led to the seat being won by the PTI though one of their much-loved and widely-respected local leaders, Zahra Shahid Hussain, a woman who had been fighting for good causes most of her adult life and had campaigned vigorously for a recount, was shot dead outside her house by assailants on motorbikes, whose identities remain unknown. Was it the MQM or a pair of their motorcycle executioners who acted without authority? We do not know and the MQM has denied the suggestion very strongly. They always do.

If there is a difference between the defeated and the victors it is this: Zardari and gang enriched themselves and bullied and punished those who stood in their way or refused to empty bags of money regularly into the pig trough; the Sharif brothers insist that they have transcended the phase of the primitive accumulation of personal capital. Nawaz’s longish sojourn in Saudi Arabia as a guest of the state (in lieu of prison at home under a military dictatorship) gave him to time to think of past mistakes and perhaps the proximity to Mecca helped a bit as well (not that it has helped curb the vices of the Saudi Royals). Anyway this is what is claimed. The implication being that they will now act on behalf of their class as a whole. Whether this will include the pro-Musharraf and pro-Zardari faction headed by the Chaudhris of Gujrat, who split from the Sharifs, exercised power with military backing, made loadsofmoney and, all the while, crowed triumphantly from the top of their dung heaps, will be an interesting test.

It’s never easy running a government in a country torn by violence and fanaticism and smelling strongly of a rottenness that shows no sign of coming to an end. And how will the new government triangulate with the Army and the United States? The latter funds the former. Both will need to be placated.  Shahbaz Sharif is busy wooing the generals and promising an easy relationship. Nawaz has said in public that he was toppled by a bad General (Musharraf) and not the army as a whole, the fiction being designed to secure a rapprochement without which friendly business ties with India will be difficult. The US favours the latter. Might they be willing to cease all drone attacks for a year to help the Sharifs in return for a smooth transition in Afghanistan after the withdrawal? And would the Army play ball in Baluchistan and stop their ‘destroy and dump the Baluch’ tactics in that province?  Will the Saudis join in, use their money and religious standing to de-fang the Pakistani Taliban? All three questions are now being mooted.  The commentariat is convinced that things can’t get worse. I hope so, but if they’re wrong it might be the fire next time with gravediggers in short supply.

Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).